Legislature has big issues and little time

Published 8:26 am Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I’ve said before that I’m not too good at being on time. Anyone who knows me even remotely well can attest to it, usually after they’ve been left waiting at a restaurant or a meeting or find themselves walking into a wedding 20 minutes late.

I would be the last person to have the right to criticize anyone on a lack of timeliness.

And so while many will join in the annual ridicule of the Alabama Legislature that has yet to pass state budgets with only nine days left in session, I will not. At least, I won’t criticize them on their timing.

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But, with 21 meeting days under its belt, I find it a little hard to believe the state government has several key issues unresolved this late in the game, including the only one its required by law to accomplish — budgeting.

In a year when Alabama faces a gloomy budget outlook, it seems forming the Education and General Fund budgets should be a priority as the Legislature convenes.

I won’t say the delay this time is necessarily all the Legislature’s fault. When Gov. Bob Riley presented them with a preliminary budget this year, it was one that likely surprised many observers because it was larger than in years past.

The preliminary budget was based on federal funds that only had hopes of passing through Congress.

And so, with nine days remaining, it’s time for the state to buckle down and pass its budgets. Often times when I work on projects last minute, they turn out just fine. But, when I get too much on my plate, it doesn’t always fit.

I would say its safe to the say the plates of Alabama legislators are weighing pretty heavy right now — with issues like the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition (PACT) plan and electronic bingo remaining unresolved. Also unresolved is a proposal that would allot $1 billion in the next 10 years to the state’s roads and bridges.

But each of these issues are things that need a resolution, and I hope the Legislature will be dependable when it comes to making decisions last minute.

First and foremost, the Legislature needs to weigh its funding carefully in drafting the state’s budgets. It’s not an easy task to predict the revenues or expenses of the state a year in advance.

Nonetheless, it’s a task at hand, and it is one the state’s residents will feel the effects of whether they realize it directly or not.

For the last two years, Alabama’s Education budgets have faced nearly the highest prorated amounts in state history. To assume Alabama will collect the same amount of money it has before the last two years would be irresponsible.

While it wouldn’t be a popular choice to make big cuts in the Education or General Fund budgets, particularly in an election year, it might be the decision that’s best for the state’s residents in the end.

When local superintendents are told how much money they will receive from the state each month, they shouldn’t have to worry that amount won’t be accurate. It would be easier on these educators to know the bad news up front – before they lock in teacher contracts and make spending promises that could leave them ultimately in a bind when the state determines it over budgeted for the third year in a row.

Consider that scenario for your own budget: your boss decides six months after hiring you he or she will be cutting your salary by 8 percent. That would leave many of us locked into lease agreements, cell phone contracts and several other bills we can’t just get out of because we can no longer afford the payments.

And thus, other areas of our lives would suffer — like our recreation, eating habits and ultimately our health.

That’s something that shouldn’t be facing our local school systems doing all they can to keep the children in classrooms unaffected by these constant cutbacks. Locally, schools have had the funds to keep up with state cuts, but if the cuts continue, that may no longer be the case.

It wouldn’t be ideal to have cuts in the Education or General Fund budgets, but a realistic look at Alabama’s finances is necessary in keeping state institutions in operation.

And next at hand would be tackling some of these key issues that have been looming almost since the session’s start.

The Legislature could give a definitive answer on electronic bingo or at least move the issue to a state vote, something that could stop the back-and-forth between the governor and attorney general and gambling “bosses.”

The Legislature should find resolution to the state’s PACT program, and it should find a way to address the road and bridge issues in Alabama. Also on their agendas are the newest steps to block provisions of the national health care bill, something that may be beneficial to the state’s constituents.

From one who’s spent most of my life dealing with all that’s important at the last possible minute, to those who represent me in office, don’t let Alabama down.

Holli Keaton is the news editor at The Messenger. She can be reached at 670-6313 or via e-mail at holli.keaton@troymessenger.com.